3 DAYS IN BELGIUMMay 24 , 2019
One of the best things about living in Europe is its proximity to so many amazing travel destinations. The ability to hop on a train or bus and a few hours later find yourself in a completely different country is unparalleled. I get goosebumps just thinking about all the trips I can plan when I have a free weekend.
My first such a spontaneous weekend took me to glorious Belgium with my fellow South African friend and travelling partner. Now I must say that this northern European country is not exactly one of the mainstream bucket-list destinations. We chose it simply because it was a neat mid-way point between France and the Netherlands (where my friend currently lives), and quite frankly, the whole world is on my personal bucket-list so where I start ticking off is not necessarily imperative. However, dear Belgium easily surpassed all my mediocre expectations. Expect a delicious combination of 14th century architecture, comic book art, waffles and chocolate from my travel diary.
I took a 6 a.m. bus from Paris and found myself in Brussels by 10 a.m. We dropped our things at Meininger Hostels (our base camp for the weekend) and immediately set out to explore the Belgian capital. The city is very much vibrant and modern, despite its historic architecture. Shop windows boast colourful displays and coffee shops are filled with quirky decor. The city’s main attraction is no doubt the Grand Place, a magnificent square dominated by the flamboyant town hall, Gothic bread house and Baroque guildhalls. The UNESCO World Heritage Sight truly takes your breath away. I was by no means expecting the awe-inspiring sight as I came strolling through a side-alley and stumbled into the landmark to find gold encrusted, towering architecture. No pictures can capture the palpable grandeur of the Grand Place.
Some other landmarks in the French-speaking capital include the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, a beautiful nineteenth century shopping arcade, street art inspired by the city’s comic book scene and the incredibly underwhelming “mannekin pis,” a little bronze statue of a boy with a strategically placed fountain (he even dons horrifying tiny outfits from time to time). The city is also home to some notable museums, such as the Magritte museum which celebrates the work of my favourite Belgian graphic artist, René Magritte.
Having conquered Brussels, we headed for Bruges on our second day in waffle country. The cobblestoned streets oozed with the charm of a distant era, especially in the centre of the old town, where much of the original fourteenth century architecture is still intact. We were particularly enamoured with the unimportant colourful row of photogenic Belgian houses in the city square. These do face an actual landmark, the famous Belfry tower which serves over 360 stairs as its main selling point. Of course, that kind of effort does promise some remarkable views over the settlement.
Bruges is heralded by some travellers as the “Venice of the north”, due to its many canals and romantic atmosphere. I can attest do this, although I must say it is a very different kind of romance than that of the Italian equivalent. Bruges seems less mysteriously enigmatic, and more sweetly endearing.
The town’s Church of Our Lady is home to Michelangelo’s fairly famous Madonna and Child sculpture, quite a masterful work despite its modest size. The acquisition verifies Bruges’ history as a leading European city once upon a time.
Currently, at least to two ignorant tourists, Bruges feels like a storybook town filled with adorable chocolate houses, picturesque architecture and overgrown canals.
Ghent’s essence proved a bit more difficult to distill as we ventured into our third Belgian city of the weekend (we were very productive). We did most of our exploration by foot, and the walk from the train station to Ghent’s main sights was tedious. The city did not seem particularly special, and on a Sunday morning, was pretty much a ghost town.
However, after we were misled by Google Maps a few times, we finally made it into the touristy city centre to find a certain magic to rival that of Brussels and Bruges. Ghent can definitely compete in the beautiful, old architecture department, with cathedrals quite literally on every corner, and is not to be outdone when it comes to World Heritage Sights. The stand-out monument has to be the medieval Gravensteen castle, which is eerily reminiscent of a certain wizarding school. To complete the fairytale, Ghent served a delicious canal-side market, offering cured meets and cheeses.
We ended our Belgian adventure in a very millennial café-slash-laundromat called WASBAR. After some commendable warm beverages and a mesmerising reminiscence about Belgian’s true spirit, we set out on our voyage back to our respective adopted countries. My love for travel means I do not have the highest standards when it comes to seeing the world, so perhaps do take my very optimistic enchantment with a grain of salt. That being said, the allure of an impulsive adventure with no itinerary or checklist, simply enjoying the moment in a foreign space, is undeniable and I will never stop singing its praises.
Words & Layout: Yolanda Senekal
Photographs: Yolanda Senekal & Louise King